Robb Flynn says Machine Head’s new album looks to the band’s early days in order to charge into the future. By Peter Hodgson.
Now is the perfect time for Machine Head. Their politically and socially aware lyricism, their never-say-die attitude, their crushing heaviness – it’s all there on new album Catharsis (out January 26th via Nuclear Blast), and it’s all informed by the upheaval in Washington and across the USA since the election of a certain orange-haired president. Frontman Robb Flynn has said that this album could “really infiltrate the mainstream” with its more direct song structures and simpler hooks. It’s true that this is one of the more accessible Machine Head albums, even though it stays very true to their trademark aggression. And if this album does break through in the way Flynn hopes, it’ll be an important landmark in the history of metal.
To tap into the spontaneous and heartfelt power that this album needed to express, Flynn and co. shook up their writing and recording process. “You write for six-to-ten months and then you record in one big chunk, and that’s what we’ve done forever,” he says. “The last couple of records were a really long time in the studio and, I just start to freak out when we do that. I can’t concentrate, I can’t focus, I get really agitated and I’m generally not very good to be around.”
So, they adopted a new approach by adopting an old one. “Y’know, when we first started, we demoed all the time. You’d demo a few songs and put them out, and in our case, we’d sell them. We’d spend six hours at Kinko’s [a department store] making up the J-cards and stickers for the cassettes. You always had that immediate reaction, too, because you were playing it live. Sometimes we’d write a song, and a week later we’d be playing it live – it wouldn’t even be finished, but you’re just trying to fill up your setlist. So with this album, we were like, ‘Why don’t we record this like a demo? Write a few songs, record those few songs, get in, get out.’ We recorded in super short little blasts of about two weeks, and we did that three times. It made such a huge difference in the way that the record came about, because a lot of the time, the songs were so fresh that we had literally finished it the day before we went in, or maybe didn’t even finish it before we went into the studio. When you listen to the album, you’re hearing the second or third time we had ever played those songs. We’d re-record it, sure, but we always went back to those first takes – something about those original versions is f***ing intense! Dave [McClain] is hitting the drums harder, I’m screaming more, my voice is cracking... There’s something in those amazing human imperfections that makes it sound amazing.”
“California Bleeding” is a standout track on the record: a virtual narrated tour of the highs and lows of living in perhaps the most bizarrely intense and extreme state in the Union. “People have this idea of California that it’s all gold‑lined streets and liberals running around with gay people and the coastal elite,” Flynn laughs. “It’s a really strange state. It does have that complete opulence on one hand: the people that are f***ing rich are rich beyond anything you could imagine. And then at the same time, it’s poorer than you can possibly comprehend. It’s such a weird dichotomy. We’re in Oakland, so we’re the bastard stepchild to San Francisco, which in its own way is even more extreme than that. And all of that soaks in. I grew up three blocks away from the trailer park that my dad grew up in. We ate Top Ramen every day for months on end. And there’s so much culture here, end-to-end. It’s overflowing with people and buildings, and in there is this friction that happens because there are so many cultures, and people just don’t get along in general. But there’s also a tolerance and an acceptance that comes out of that, because you kind of have to. You learn to just let shit roll off your back. Especially with crime as high as it is here, life is short – you want to live as hard as you can. All of those different things shape where we come from.”
The song “Bastards” is another key track on the album. It’s a message from Flynn to his kids about staying strong in a world that can be very dark and unjust. “I wrote that after a discussion with my kids a day after the election,” he says. “I wrote those lyrics in one shot. I picked up a guitar and I started strumming four chords; it was four chords I had heard a million times, and I knew that. To me, it was a folk song. In a weird way it became the centrepiece of the album.”
Flynn’s main guitar for the record was a custom Flying V made by a German luthier. “It’s a 28-inch scale, so it’s a baritone-plus,” Flynn laughs. “And it’s f***ing brutally heavy. It has a pickguard on it but it’s just for looks, so there’s no wood drilled out of it, and it just has this brutal, super defined and super tight sound. I don’t even take it on tour anymore because I don’t want to risk injuring it. I’ve got an EMG 81 pickup in that, and 98 percent of the guitars you hear in the mix are from me, left and right. It’s quad guitars – two on each side – and then the main amp is a 5150 with a Boogie cabinet, and the other is a 5150 with a Marshall vintage. Y’know, nobody was doing the quad-tracking before Machine Head; we were pioneers in that. It just makes everything sound so f***ing heavy.
“We’ve been tuning to drop B since 1992, and I think it wouldn’t work if we had a different. Nobody was even drop‑tuning when we started, so for us, it was all new territory. We tried all sorts of different amps, but we couldn’t get that low note to cut through. Then we got to the 5150 and we were like, ‘Shit!’ It’s got this growl in the midrange that’s different to a Marshall or Boogie.”
So can we expect to see Machine Head in Australia any time soon? “Oh yeah,” he laughs conspiratorially. “I can’t tell you, but we’ve got plans in motion…”
Tuesday July 17th - HQ, Adelaide
Wednesday July 18th - Eatons Hill Hotel, Brisbane
Friday July 20th - Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Saturday July 21st - Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Tuesday July 24th - Astor Theatre, Perth